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A Safe Distance


The writer on myth-making as a means to confront the realities of modern-day slavery.

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Image by Ian Douglas.

Judging by the success of California, Find Me, and Station Eleven, the future looks bright for dystopian fiction. Novels in which characters struggle to survive in some barely recognizable American landscape, absent of government and replete with danger, may be as much a reflection of our times as they are an escape from it. In James Hannaham’s latest book, Delicious Foods, people vanish from the streets at night; men are murdered for their political beliefs and their killers are left unpunished; mothers are locked inside industrial chicken coops; and farm workers are forced to pick rotten limes or risk being beaten. But this bleak vision is not set in some speculative alternate universe—it’s a modern reality we rarely choose to look at.

Delicious Foods introduces us to Eddie, a young man who loses his youth, and his hands, to modern slavery. His mother Darlene is an educated and ambitious woman unraveled by the death of her husband and a newfound crack addiction (a habit she supports through prostitution). When Darlene disappears, we learn she was lured by a dubious company called Delicious Foods on the promise of meaningful farm work. She rides to Delicious Foods expecting to find a swimming pool and fair wages. But her dream dissolves when she learns she’ll have to work off the “debt” accrued from the ride itself and her accommodations—which she’ll share with beleaguered workers and a flock of chickens. Meanwhile, Eddie is left to wander the streets, hoping to discover his mother’s whereabouts.

Hannaham’s first novel, God Says No (2010), also addresses weighty social issues, focusing on so-called gay reparative therapies. But Hannaham is an artist of many talents, eager to experiment with form—his project “Card Tricks,” for example, plays with fictionalized art gallery placards, and in another, called “Lengthy Statements,” he wraps lines of vinyl text around a gallery to probe the place “where art stops looking like art.” His website describes him as “James Hannaham, author, part-time conceptual artist, writer, or something like that. Perhaps novelist, but also journalist, teacher, and occasional performer…I dunno, prose specialist?” Even within the more traditional form of the novel, Hannaham challenges convention: one of the narrators of Delicious Foods is the voice of crack cocaine.

Hannaham has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Blue Mountain Center, Chateau de Lavigny, and Fundación Valparaíso. He is the cofounder of the performance group Elevator Repair Service, and has exhibited his text-based art at Samsøn Projects in Boston, Rosalux Gallery in Minneapolis, 490 Atlantic in Brooklyn, and at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists in Philadelphia. His drive and the breadth behind his work have not escaped reviewers. Considering Delicious Foods for the New York Times, Ted Genoways writes, “In short, Hannaham is never lacking in ambition—and he means to tell a sweeping American tale that draws equally from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Grapes of Wrath.” Ron Charles writes in the Washington Post, “In swift, startling scenes, Hannaham makes visible the ornate prison of racism that constricts the spirits of ordinary people and crushes the spirits of extraordinary ones.”

Delicious Foods is not a story about the death of the American Dream, but an illumination of the fantasies that surround it, and the denial that permits us to believe in its innocence. It is also a compelling and haunting tale of family, responsibility, and endurance. I spoke with Hannaham this spring about his work as a writer, artist, and teacher who interrogates the boundaries of art and the limitations of what we allow ourselves to see.

Benjamin Samuel for Guernica

Guernica: In both God Says No and Delicious Foods, you confront social injustice head-on.

James Hannaham: There’s an important thing to remember when you’re a novelist: you’re going to work on something for, like, six years, so it can’t be about something that is going to have gone away by the time you’re done with the book. I always find the thing that inspires me is something I feel like I’ve discovered, something that is like a magma underneath a culture. I know it’s just going to keep coming up and it’s going to keep not getting dealt with. It stops me from getting discouraged.

It’s just insane to me that people are not aware of [modern-day slavery]. I think people are deliberately not being aware of it. Because that’s the way our society works now. We don’t really think about who’s putting [our iPhones] together. Occasionally there’s a “shocking” article that makes the rounds about people jumping out of the windows of the iPhone factory in China, but deliberately there’s a distance. We excuse ourselves for being complicit in this thing that we probably wouldn’t want to be complicit in if it was much closer.

Guernica: People might be aware of the ugly reality of how an iPhone gets made, but the idea of indentured servitude in the US is not something that I think many people are aware of.

James Hannaham: All you have to do is keep your eyes open. Look at the position of Mexican people in New York City. People are so comfortable with the idea that all the busboys in restaurants are Mexican, but none of the waiters. What the fuck? What is wrong with people that they can’t see what is right under their noses? Even in our very liberal bubble, you can just look and see the discrimination that’s going on. In fact, there’s a great website called slaverymap.org where they put a little flag next to prosecuted cases of trafficking and slavery in the US, and some of them are, like, on Canal Street in New York.

On a certain level it’s not surprising that people wouldn’t want to be aware of this, or how widespread it is.

Guernica: And I think your book is particularly powerful and surprising because the characters who are enslaved are Americans, rather than foreigners or migrant workers.

James Hannaham: This particular variety of modern slavery was interesting to me because of its connection to chattel slavery in the past of African-Americans. I didn’t feel like I was uniquely suited to tell the story of Mexican immigrants who might’ve been in similar or worse situations. So I didn’t. And I feel like maybe this book will inspire somebody else who feels closer to that experience.

What the hell century is it that this kind of thing is still going on in the same place, to essentially the same segment of the population?

Guernica: It seems you’re dealing with the misconception that we dealt with the “slavery issue” during the Civil War and it’s over now.

James Hannaham: Yeah, everybody talks about it that way. Black people talk about it that way. Black people talk about slavery as if it is no longer happening. It’s no longer happening in the same way, it’s not legal chattel slavery. It’s not sanctioned.

Which is, I think, one thing a novel can do that nonfiction is not as good at doing: myth-making

Guernica: To what extent was inciting action a part of the writing of this book?

James Hannaham: That was not my primary focus. I just thought it would make a great story. I wasn’t sure that anyone was going to be all that excited about it, because it’s very dire material. It’s really depressing. And there’s plenty of nonfiction source material about this issue, and I was actually a little surprised that nobody had taken that source material and turned it into something of an emotional history of these kinds of things happening. Which is, I think, one thing a novel can do that nonfiction is not as good at doing: myth-making, in a certain way. We don’t just need the facts, we need a kind of myth around it. What I’m providing is an emotional story that goes along with the truth of what’s going on. I hope.

I didn’t think that anybody was going to be inspired to become an activist, but I’m very excited that one can do activism around the book.

Guernica: Ticket sales from your book launch benefitted Free the Slaves.

James Hannaham: I also gave them a substantial chunk of my advance, to be honest. I felt like I could just take the money and run, or I could actually help people who are in those horrendous circumstances by raising awareness of the fact that it’s happening, and donating money to this organization that’s doing great stuff. They’re actually going in and rescuing people, as well as lobbying. It’s a very comprehensive thing they’re doing. I don’t feel like I could go in and do actual rescues—I think I’m too much of a chickenshit for that. But at least I can do something.

I was just having a conversation with somebody who was referring to being part of the problem or being not part of the problem; he felt that there were all these instances in which he was tricked into actually being a part of the problem when he thought what he was doing was actually not being part of the problem. This is my way of not being part of the problem. Actually it’s not even that—I’m trying to be less of a problem. But you’re stuck, just because of the way our society works. You can’t know everything, because that’s the way it works.

Guernica: There’s a character in the book, a journalist named Jarvis, who does get involved with the exploited workers at Delicious Foods. Jarvis, as an outsider, is able to approach Delicious Foods with a different attitude than the slaves, and a different expectation that he can reason with the management.

James Hannaham: I think of my characters in a variety of ways. I kind of cast a friend of mine as a particular character. Jarvis, to me, could be played by John Bowe—that’s why I named him [Jarvis] Arrow—but he’s not really supposed to be John. John’s the guy who wrote Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. I refer to Delicious Foods as the demon child of John Bowe’s book Nobodies. I don’t know that John ever got involved [in the circumstances of the people he was writing about], but I imagine that as a journalist one might want to get involved. Even if it wasn’t practical or possible. It makes much more sense for a fictional journalist to get involved in that kind of thing than it does for a real-life one.

That’s one difference between feeling that you’re free and feeling that you’re enslaved: that sense that you can have a conversation with authority rather than just get shot dead by authority in the street.

Guernica: Freedom obviously plays a major role in the novel, yet it isn’t explicitly discussed that often. The characters at Delicious Foods seem to accept their fate.

James Hannaham: Well, it’s roiling underneath. It’s not that they’re happy slaves or anything. I mean, how do you keep people in this state of subjugation for so long? I don’t think it has anything to do with their liking it or not, it’s just that they’re stuck. And lots of people get stuck in lots of different situations that they hate and this is just another possibility for a really bad variety of that kind of situation. People get stuck in jobs all the time. It has nothing to do with their happiness or misery.

Human nature is pretty screwy. And denial and the stories you tell yourself to get through the day are more powerful than they appear a lot of the time.

Guernica: Also, the workers at Delicious Foods are drugged. Drugs and addiction seem to function as another form of slavery, another trap that’s more powerful than oneself.

James Hannaham: Yeah, it’s an interesting parallel. The inclusion [of addiction] in the book really has much more to do with the real life cases than it does my interest in examining [addiction as a metaphor for slavery]. It’s really just one of the horrible reasons that it works the way it does. One thing that I was puzzled by for a long time was: What is it about crack addicts that makes them desirable workers, desirable farm workers? You would think that would not be the case. I think it’s that they’re not going to be missed—or the supervisors don’t think they’ll be missed. [The supervisors] actually think they’re doing these people a favor by getting them off the street.

I think the only way to do that is to convince yourself that you’re a good person, that you’re doing this in a sort of charitable way. It’s so twisted, but it’s actually the way that people justify it to themselves. Human nature is pretty screwy. And denial and the stories you tell yourself to get through the day are more powerful than they appear a lot of the time.

Guernica: There’s a moment in the book in which Darlene addresses freedom in terms of being able to leave Delicious Foods versus wanting to leave.

James Hannaham: At a certain point she’s like, “This is a place where I can have my drugs and do work that I think is worthwhile.” And to a lot of people I think that is more important than the money, and that’s where a lot of American workers and workers around the world really get stuck in a job that’s not adequate: it’s not giving you health benefits, it’s not really paying your way, but you still have this emotional need for [doing] some kind of worthwhile work and being able to say, “I am a fill-in-the-blank.” That was a moment I was not expecting to happen [in the book]. I was writing this moment when Darlene says that, and I was like, “Oh my god! Oh no. You’re kidding me, Darlene.” It was not my intention to have somebody say that, but then I realized that was probably how she was thinking about it.

Guernica: We see the supervisors, like How, committing atrocities, but then there’s Sextus, who is running Delicious Foods, but isn’t shown getting his hands dirty or actually being a villain.

James Hannaham: Well, [he is] at a distance, at a safe distance for himself. He is one of those people who pretends that it’s not happening. Delicious is actually a mysterious shell company for this other company, and he has plausible deniability for the whole thing because he can say, “They’re subcontractors, I don’t know what they’re up to.” I mean that’s actually the way it works in a lot of these situations. “Oh, we don’t know what the pickers are doing. We just deal with their supervisors, we have no idea how they treat their workers.”

There’s a weird way the management of the Bush administration wasn’t actually intentional. To me George Bush was doing something Bush-like. You know, a charming fellow on a certain level, but also involved in a weird possible self-deception, and definitely involved in things that he might not even know that he’s involved in.

Guernica: And in bed with people who are much more comfortable doing the dirty work.

James Hannaham: I think it was important for me to make [Sextus’s] evil seem more subtle than just “he’s an evil guy.” Because I think that’s George Bush. He seems like kind of a buffoon. It’s entertaining for everybody while our civil liberties are being yanked out from under us. The Republicans at that time were like, “Look at the clown, look at the clown!” Meanwhile, there goes your privacy.

Guernica: Your work extends beyond the book. For instance, in your project “Card Tricks,” you use fictional art gallery placards to create a meta-mockery of the art world. How do projects that experiment with form and convention balance with your novel writing?

James Hannaham: I try not to see boundaries so much. If I have an idea that I think I can execute, and I think it’s a good idea, why shouldn’t I just go ahead and do it? That’s pretty much how all that came about. I was teaching a class that turned out to be conceptual art, but it really started out as artists who use text in their work. At a certain point in the teaching of that class, I hadn’t seen this thing before, and it could be done relatively cheaply and easily, or so I thought. It seemed like something someone was going to do at some point. So if not me, who? If not now, when?

Guernica: What about the creative process for a project like “Card Tricks”? People seem to have a general idea of what novel writing looks like, but “Card Tricks” is something more unfamiliar.

James Hannaham: When people say “writing process,” what do they mean? I feel like everyone has a different way of approaching it. It’s almost like when people say “the gay community,” or “the gay lifestyle” or “the black community.” People are just lumping everyone into this standardized format. I feel like there are as many writing processes as there are writers.

But I think the skills that I draw on more often in [pieces like “Card Tricks”] are nonfiction, journalism, criticism. In a way the format, the word count, is more similar to an article that one might find in a newspaper than it is to other kinds of writing. I think there’s a lot more effort in terms of research that goes into writing a novel. Usually, if I’m writing a book, I’m thinking of it in a much larger way. I want it to contain more, or I expect it to contain more.

My major was graphic design. This sort of “art thing,” it’s not like it came from nowhere. I’ve been following visual art for a long time, partially because it’s part of the value system of my family. And especially because of my cousin and her dad, who are both accomplished visual artists.

Guernica: The cover of Delicious Foods was by artist Kara Walker.

James Hannaham: That’s who I mean when I say my cousin! [laughs] She’s my cousin. Or I’m her cousin. Whichever way it works. But we’re first cousins. She had come to me when God Says No was in the process and was like, “Hey, if you need a cover for that…” I had already started working on Delicious Foods, which is more in line with her work. And in some ways I consider it a conversation I’m having with her. I mean, I dedicated it to her and Clarinda Mac Low. I imagine that the book is kind of me saying, “Hey, Kara! Look at this, what about this!”

Guernica: I imagine your team at Little Brown was thrilled to have that cover.

James Hannaham: It was part of the deal. We came to them with that already in place. She asked me if she could do it, and I was like, “Hell, yeah.”

Guernica: You’re teaching in the MFA program at Pratt. Are you bringing your appreciation of other disciplines to the program?

James Hannaham: I think we’re trying to forge a third way. I feel like we’re trying to develop some new way of critiquing work that is more informed by visual art critique, actually, and more encouraging of experimentation, particularly genre mixing. The ideal work that we’re subtly suggesting our students either take a look at or somehow be informed by is Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen, just because it moves so well among the different genres, from art criticism to prose poetry to journalism. It’s so formally strong in all the things that it’s doing that you can’t really dump it into any particular category. And that’s where a lot of the really exciting things that are happening in literature are going.

I’d like to think that if somebody came to the Pratt MFA and they wanted to be a stand-up comic, we could figure out a way to make the MFA work for them. Just anything that has something to do with writing. We’re not trying to nail things down so much as investigate them, investigate form and investigate new ways of looking at art. Of which literature is actually a part, and I think that’s getting lost a little bit in the American conversation.

It’s more fun sometimes to write against your own beliefs, or to write a character who is someone you wouldn’t particularly like in real life but try to render them compassionately and faithfully.

Guernica: How so?

James Hannaham: I sometimes hear people talk about novels in particular as more like a craft than as art. There’s a general kind of received idea that writing a novel is not the same as painting a painting, or it’s not the equivalent in terms of its artistic value. People talk about [novels] like there’s some sort of formula, when in fact I think readers respond more often to comments on formulas. There’s this feeling that you have to write what you know, and you have to be sincere about it, and it’s not that way at all. It’s more fun sometimes to write against your own beliefs, or to write a character who is someone you wouldn’t particularly like in real life but try to render them compassionately and faithfully.

Guernica: So what is the appeal of being a novelist? What does fiction offer you as a creator of art that other forms might not?

James Hannaham: [Fiction] is such a catchall. You can use different skills. A lot of the different skills I feel like I’ve developed over the years, or wanted to develop, can come into play in the course of writing a novel. You always see writers with bios where they’ve had twenty-five horrible jobs—I love those. I feel like those experiences, they’re always helpful, characterizing.

Guernica: What about the more familiar bios we see now: the author went to this undergrad, and then this MFA, and this is the book that trajectory produced?

James Hannaham: You mean what is wrong with those people? [laughs] I don’t know, there are people who have known since they were relatively young that they wanted to be novelists, and they feel that they know how to do that, and they’re on a kind of professionalized track. I didn’t really have that urge from the beginning. I was interested in art. I had a graphic design job at The Village Voice, then I started writing articles for The Village Voice, and then I stopped doing design. It was a design assistant job—and it was held by Cynthia Carr at one point, and Hilton Als also. When I got that job I was aware that it could lead in any number of directions, it didn’t have to be that I was going to go up the ladder in the graphic design department, but there were other ways to progress from that job. And of course I took the weird one.

Guernica: When you published your first novel, you didn’t have an agent. Now you do?

James Hannaham: Oh, do I ever! [laughs] I’m saying that because he’s fantastic. Doug Stewart at Sterling Lord. He read God Says No on an impulse, and he liked it so much he looked at the acknowledgements to find out whether or not I was thanking an agent, and when he saw that I wasn’t, he got in touch with me. By that time I was a street dog with agents. I was like [growls], who needs these people? But Doug has softened me a great deal. I feel like he’s taken me in, fed me high-quality Alpo, got me my shots.

Guernica: Do you seek out readers for your early drafts who come from different disciplines?

James Hannaham: The person I always give things to first is Clarinda Mac Low, who is one of my best friends, because she reads extremely quickly, and she’s able to assess something without it feeling judgmental. I wouldn’t get offended if she said something wasn’t working. I’m very interested in what she has to say, and I respect what she has to say. And there are just a bunch of other people. I mean, I ask just about anybody whose opinion I respect. There’s like six levels of people I show it to. The people who are harder on me I save until the last. [Kara Walker] would’ve been level five of six. She was really enthusiastic about it, she really liked the book. Which is good because I was planning to dedicate it to her the whole time.

Guernica: I’m curious to hear a bit about your background. Where did you grow up?

James Hannaham: I grew up in the New York City suburb known as Yonkers. It has a sort of scrappy reputation; in some parts it’s like Queens or the Bronx, in other parts it’s more like Scarsdale. My upbringing was middlebrow multiculturalism before there was NY1. My elementary schools struggled pretty hard to be racially mixed, with interesting results. While a lot of ethnic groups were represented—it seemed sometimes like I knew one person from every country, even places like Burma and Zambia—the general makeup of the school system was split down the spine of the city black/white. Or really more like black/Italian-Jewish-Irish, but that’s perhaps too complicated a view of things. So they got sued by the NAACP and the Feds for having segregated schools in 1980. But that was largely because the housing was segregated.

To this day I still think a book isn’t good enough if it isn’t filthy in some way.

Guernica: What sorts of influences did you have as kid? Was your upbringing political at all?

James Hannaham: Childhood influences included far too much Monty Python. It used to come on PBS after my mother had gone to bed on Sundays, and I would sneak downstairs during those times when we had a TV at all to watch it. And while Python is a gateway to other British comedy, it’s also a gateway to things like knowing who René Descartes was by the fifth grade. Dr. Demento, ditto. It’s odd how many of my influences were comic. And then my mother didn’t censor our reading, so we ran to the library to find the dirtiest books we possibly could. But they turned out to be pretty literary, most of them. To this day I still think a book isn’t good enough if it isn’t filthy in some way.

My mom was an investigative journalist for a radio station called WFAS in those days, from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s, and I heard a lot of her stories as she was putting them together in our kitchen late at night or whenever. I guess you could say that I grew up in a household where political awareness was just part of the atmosphere, though not in an ideological way, more in an inquisitive way.

Guernica: Returning to Delicious Foods, I’m curious about the character Scotty, who is crack cocaine. How did you imagine this character?

James Hannaham: I started writing the book with a close third person on a drug addict. The first person didn’t seem right for that, because a drug addict in the throes of his or her addiction is unlikely to be very lucid about those experiences. The character of Darlene was going to be a different sort of person, someone much closer to Scotty in terms of speech and attitude, but then I decided to make Darlene someone who had had some opportunities and was throwing them away through her addiction. But I’d enjoyed writing the Scotty voice and I still wanted to keep going with it. So I was left with the question of the narrator’s identity. One of the possible candidates was that it was the drug itself speaking, and that seemed like a suitably naughty risk for me to take in the writing of the book. I didn’t think anyone would really like that from a political sort of perspective: Who really cares what crack cocaine would think if it could think? Why give voice to something that had caused so much pain and chaos and violence? But I like to get into that kind of trouble.

Guernica: The characters in the book are in such bleak circumstances. How did you avoid turning them into pure victims?

James Hannaham: I’d like to think that it is easy to emphasize the humanity of one’s characters to keep them from seeming like victims, but apparently it is not. But that’s the stance I kept in mind the whole time. One odd thing I kept having to remind myself is that people say really funny things while they’re using drugs, but those things aren’t exactly funny in the context of a drug addiction, though they may be funny in the moment. That’s one of those tensions I have always enjoyed messing around in. Perhaps that’s something else I can credit to my Yonkers upbringing. My friends from there and I still find jokes funnier the more inappropriate and rude they are. It’s like some kind of weird compulsion to be crass. And it really does feel different than the way people from Queens or the Bronx do it. A friend of mine from high school, Len Vlahos, just sold a young-adult novel where one of the characters is a brain tumor. Go figure!

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